“We Have Met the Enemy and They are Ours”

Painting by William Henry Powell depicting Per...
Painting by William Henry Powell depicting Perry’s transfer to the Niagara during the Battle of Lake Erie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

September 10, 1813, was a black day for British forces in Canada.  The key to the situation was the naval strength on Lake Erie; the British needed superiority there to supply Colonel Procter’s force.  The job was entrusted to Captain Robert Barclay.  His opposite number for the Americans was Captain Perry.

Five of the American ships were at Black Rock, near the entrance to the Niagara River, but they could not get out because they would have been shelled by British guns at Fort Erie.  Perry’s ships at Presqu’Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania) were also in a bad position.   There was a sandbar at the entrance to the harbour and the heavy warships could not sail over it unless they were buoyed up by barges on either side.  They would be easy targets for British warships outside the harbour.

Then came the turning point.  The British gunners had to leave Fort Erie to help repel an American invasion of the Niagara Peninsula.  This enabled Perry’s ships to leave Black Rock.  Captain Barclay, for some mysterious reason, relaxed his guard at the entrance to Presqu’Isle and Perry took advantage of the lapse to get his warships over the sandbar.  The American warships were untied and free to operate on Lake Erie.

Colonel Procter was in a desperate situation.  Barclay, knowing he had to provide supply ships for him, had no other alternative but to attack Perry’s fleet.  He had only six ships to the Americans’ nine.  He did not even have proper guns, but had to take what he could from Fort Malden and install them on his ships, although they were not suitable.

Barclay knew he had little chance of success, but he had to try.  The rival fleets met on the morning of September 10 and after three hours of skilful, desperate fighting, the Americans won a complete victory.  Two days later, Perry was able to send his famous message scribbled on the back of an old letter, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”  The defeat made it impossible for Procter to hold the Detroit sector.

There are a few interesting sites that cover the Battle of Lake Erie. A few I suggest are the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial 2013, and History.com, and then there’s About.com which has a great article by Kennedy Hickman. Another good site is at U.S. National Park Services. All good places to start your search.


  1. Do you remember Pogo, the cartoon ‘possum? That was his famous comment, too. Little did I recognize that he was paraphrasing Perry’s more famous quote. (I’m embarrassed to admit that since I managed to not make the connection until I read your blog today. Shame on me!)


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